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Feature: The Venice Lagoon & Seaweed — 17.12.21

Seaweed, The Venice Lagoon And Sustainable Material Research








The Venice Lagoon and Seaweed. A 10-day research residency that took designer Kathryn Larsen to the Venetian canals and seagrass beds, to investigate and experiment with seaweed. Within architecture and design, what is the potential for seaweed? This was the question that Larsen was occupied with. Building on a fascination with how we used to build historically, the lagoon and its enclosed elements were abundant with questions and possibilities for Kathryn Larsen. A rich visual documentation, bio-based material experimenting, and turning Venetian seaweed into Venetian Wakame leather. 

Associated with vernacular architecture, a branch that sits outside of contemporary design, was historical building done at a smaller scale where traditional and local materials were fundamental. Larsen tells us that vernacular architecture can be a source of inspiration and a thorough guide to building sustainably in the present, circling around the incorporation of local materials. “I think there’s a lot to learn and a lot to be inspired by”, she tells us. The notion of traditional and local resources integral to design reaffirms principles such as designing out waste, one that is necessary to build circular spaces.






This small insight into Larsen’s practice is crucial. It provides a look into and an understanding behind the focus she has on natural building materials, especially seaweed and seagrass as tools for architectural design.

The seaweed selected this time took Larsen to the canals of Venice, in northern Italy. Over ten days, from six in the morning to the late hours of the night, Larsen experimented as part of a guest residency for the research project “Non-Extractice Architecture”. The process was strenuous and intensive, but that is “the beauty of a research residency,” says Larsen, it is a culmination and burst of creative energy and output.

Whilst mapping by hand, and noting the unique locale and ecosystems, Larsen found the fluctuating biodiversity in the canals to be profound. From places rich and teeming with biodiversity to those completely lifeless and absent of flora. “It was fascinating to see how light and nutrients traveling through the canals can impact what and where things grow,” she highlights. This aspect of the physical environment was a crucial part in later determining whether the Venetian beds had potential as a responsible source of seaweed.






How do you arrive at a conclusion that determines a space is unlikely to be a responsibly used resource? We asked Larsen this and her answer was especially insightful, reinforcing her knowledge on challenges that arise with natural and sustainable materials. “Seagrass is a finicky resource and needs appropriately clear water and seabed to root in, in order to grow. If you want to use it responsibly, you should use it mostly in areas where so much washes up, the local government resorts to burying it in landfills.

Places in Greece, Germany and Denmark have this situation, but I couldn’t see the same in Venice specifically while I was there in April. You should only harvest what washes up after storms, and some should be left on the shore so that fish and other animals can spawn. I saw that eelgrass has had a preservation effort in Venice with LIFE Seagrass Restoration, since 2014. So I concluded that right now might not be the best time to use it responsibly as a resource.”

Especially as we see a shift towards experimentation with natural and biological materials, it is of substantial importance that there is attention paid to the nature of material collection and sourcing. Is it locally in abundance? What is the lifecycle, and lifespan of the material? Where is it coming from? Where is it going after being used? These questions dominate the research phase for Larsen, each one similarly critical and necessary for designers working with materials like this. This decision diverted Larsen’s focus towards instead experimenting with the seaweed leather as a bio-based material, through detailed visual documentation.






Mapping the lines and routes of the Italian city pushed Larsen’s research to becoming more informed, giving her a heightened knowledge of materials both used and present within the local environment. Within material research, Larsen tells us that mapping is like that of a study tool, “we can see patterns, follow movement, learn more about the world around us”. The hand drawings, shades, and annotations detail Venice and aspects that it encompasses on a more personal level. The urban sketching of Venice is drawn out across pages of Favini Shiro Alga Carta paper. 

The seaweed study became seaweed leather - Venetian Wakame leather - each material distinct in texture due to changing processes of stretching, pressing and drying. Although translucent in nature, Larsen hopes to work on experimenting with shades for the leather in the future. When stretched across the top of wooden legs, the seaweed leather was woven seamlessly into the frame, all designed by Larsen herself. Whilst seagrass is used within design, seaweed leather is still undergoing R&D and testing, with Larsen’s Venetian seaweed research traversing across that already. We asked Larsen if this experimenting and material research could be replicated in other locations, and she noted that as she relied on large invasive wakame fronds to create her leather, other local species may differ and so would result in material differences.






This Venetian seaweed study is both critical and creative, it pushes us to rethink seaweed as a resource for ourselves, a resource for design, and a resource for the built environment. For Larsen she says, “I am always hoping that by sharing my work, I am changing people’s perception of seaweed so that they can embrace it again. More and more people are interested in seaweed’s ability to absorb CO2, so I see it as becoming very relevant, alongside other biomass materials for construction.”

As Larsen continues to weave through possibilities with seaweed, her Master’s thesis centres around industrial seaweed and mussel farming. A prototype made from seaweed and mussel shell food waste will lead her towards looking into a biodegradable concrete-like material, and a basis for material research into a futuristic mixed-housing complex. As opposed to importing seaweed, her research here explores locally grown and farmed seaweed in the Netherlands.

With an eye on designers working with growable materials (unlike Larsen who admits she doesn’t have a green thumb), things like spirulina grow-tanks, mycelium and scoby leather have her attention. In just over a week, an elemental material found rooted in northern Italy’s seabed was reimagined. Material futures are already here, and Larsen is driving an innovative path fusing design, vernacular architecture and natural materials vividly.



IMAGES BY SPACE CAVIAR.



Kathryn Larsen is currently a master’s student at TU Delft in Architecture. An eelgrass expert, working with seaweed, seagrass and sustainability. Available for consultancy on material research and renovation projects.  IMAGES COPYRIGHT © ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

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